Product: Elbug Introductory Disc
Publisher: Elbug
Compatibility: Acorn Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #51

The number of compilations that actually exist for the Electron is quite surprising, isn't it? Pres, Superior, Database, HeadFirst PD, Blue Ribbon and a few others may be the tip of the iceberg with very creative coding and strong reputations. But a little further down, you brush off a few Acornsoft ones, PCW, Cascade, Argus Publishing and twenty-two Elbug compilations, not to mention the Elbug Introductory one!

Elbug mag, available by mail order, is a real rarity eighteen years on but was actually the very first standalone one for the Electron. It appeared November 1983 - a small, A5, dull-looking 36-page monochrome booklet costing £1.00 - two months before Electron User hit the shelves at the same price and (possibly) numbered its days.

Published by Beebugsoft, a name no stranger to most respecting BBC owners, Elbug was similar to Electron User in that, for an additional sum, all listed programs were available on cassette. The Elbug Introductory [media] is a compilation of programs from the first few issues, originally available on tape but transferred to disc without problem when the first disc drive expansions were brought out.

Enough history. For your money here, you get four games and four utilities; everything written in BASIC, fully listable and unprotected. There's a chance the title Elbug Introductory Cassette is meant to make it appeal as an alternative to the Electron Introductory one [Elbug and Electron sound pretty similar - Ed] but there's no sign this was Beebugsoft's intention so it's unfair to compare the two. On !BOOTing, or CHAINing the first file, you are presented with the obligatory contents menu on a blue screen to make selecting a program easier. Of course, if you're using tape you can forward it as applicable to save time - or even not use the menu at all as all programs can be CHAINed directly.

Chronologically you will first need to 'defend Space City' and this choice of vocabulary will have probably given away that this is a shoot'em-up involving a good few hostile aliens and you as the city's only hope. Despite being written in BASIC, so all the CHR$ defintions move jerkily and slowly, the screen is livened up by a starry blue backdrop with a V-shaped mothership in the top-centre and a collection of skyscrapers bottom-centre as well as 'you' and 'them'.

You are equipped with infinite exclamation marks to lob at the little darlings and 'home-in' by firing then steering left and right. Unfortunately, the aliens frequently side-step at the last moment leaving you to cruise aimlessly to the top of the screen (wasting valuable seconds) while their friends go in for the kill. It's hard enough to even get the pixel-perfect targetting required without this frustration. If an alien touches the city, it's all over and they do rain down quite mercilessly, and are much more cunning than you'd expect, so in the end playability is reasonably high. Actually surviving a level is quite an achievement and surviving two, when the aliens start even lower, is a minor miracle!

The next game is Maze. Oh, brother. This is about as bad as a 'game' can get; typical two colour, wireframe screens with no clues, no variety and no reward at all for getting out. The best that can be said for it is that it's a very difficult game to do on an Electron. Perhaps Hewson, with its fantastic 3D Southern Belle/Evening Star train journeys, could have managed to do it well. As it is, even the Acornsoft version is (at least!) mediocre.

The games part of the compilation luckily is saved by title number three 3D Oxo. This is Noughts and Crosses with a difference; there are four surfaces to puzzle over and you can choose to place your marks (or even colours) either on the same surface or across all four. It's a bit confusing at first but after the Elk whoops your ass a few times you do get the hang of it. The rules are simple and it's probably the best game in the compilation (even with its intellectual bias).

Racer is that idea of you moving one car on a narrow, scrolling road, birds'-eye view, with lots of stationary cars to overtake, and taking care not to plough into them or the roadside. Admittedly after this (firmly average) version, this type of game has been done time and time again with the same dire consequences. Whether road, ski-slope, motorbike or boat race, it simply isn't interesting to play. (The one time it's well utilised is in Spy Hunter by U.S.Gold - and for BBC only.)

Games not overly impressive, the four utilities also start off badly. Patchwork is a Mode 2 pattern generator that doesn't live up to its promise of amazing displays: in fact, all its displays look identical, they simply get scaled larger or smaller. One big multicoloured cube isn't really going to get looked at very often, is it?

Now the next utility is one of the brightest ideas imaginable. Simply called Memory Display and complete in a function key defintion that programs f8, this tool will also anyone needing to view the contents of a number of memory locations to hit f8, type in the location to start and type in the location to finish. It will then display each location in turn. No more FOR NEXT loops during assembly code programming!

Character Definer comes next. There have been a hundred and one versions of this and this only lets you define one 8x8 character definition at a time. It might help brand new programmers to understand this function of the BBC series' computers though...

Have they saved the best for last? No. The last program is little more than a space filler. Called Keyset, this simply assigns commands to the function keys. Phphphphp... One of them simply changes to Mode 6 and LISTs with the scroll inhibiter on!

Overall then, the compilation is simply very, very dated. In its time, it may not have been bad but only three of its contents have stood the test of time. There's an 'irksome'ness over the whole of it as the commands switching off the flashing cursor are Electron-specific - so loading the games on another machine means you need to add VDU23;8202;0;0;0; at particular places - and the Character Definer even refers you to instructions for it in the first Elbug issue. This simply shouldn't happen in a standalone compilation!

Unless you're a complete beginner, or desperate for any Electron programs you can get your hands on, you really shouldn't bother with it.